Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo is fighting loneliness by adding ‘slow lanes’ for the elderly to be able
to go to the checkouts and chat with the staff.

By John Gibb

Can a thing such as an automated checkout station be viewed as antisocial? If not, what about the social consequences of the creation and application of such a thing?

Automation has a long and well-documented history as a double-edged sword. Along with its many benefits of convenience, it has been primarily a means to reduce labour costs and thus increase profits within capitalist economies. Self-checkouts are no exception. Contrary to claims of improved customer experience, cutting staff hours and positions is the key to their existence. It’s simply shareholders vs shoppers, no more, no less.

I previously wrote about staff cuts at our local Metro and Shoppers Drug Mart for Centennial News in January 2022. You still have a checkout choice at Shoppers and may simply need to contact friendly staff working near the counter. Sadly, Metro has closed all staffed checkouts from 8-9 a.m., Monday to Thursday. Imagine trying to self-check and bag any quantity of groceries, let alone a full cart! Attempts to speak with a human via the Customer Care phone number for comment all failed. This is head office “bean counting” and no fault of the good folks working locally.

Has technology made it harder to connect meaningfully with others? “We live in a digital world; just short of being pixelated or virtual ourselves, the things around us continue to get smarter, faster, more connected, becoming increasingly more digital. Customer relationships are digital; Business channels are digital;  Our conversations are digital, and our social interactions are slowly being affected by this digital world. (Nicki Giladi, “Self-checkout in Retail: Measuring the Loss,” October 2018) 

Toni Antonucci at the University of Michigan agrees. “For many, interacting with a familiar cashier is a cherished part of their day. Those kinds of human connections are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, especially for those who grew up in an analog world.”

All readers know about the impact COVID-19 has had on our frequency and quality of face-to-face communication. In fact, the U.S. surgeon general warned that loneliness and isolation have become an epidemic.

Of course, feelings of loneliness and isolation aren’t unique to seniors. Antonucci states that: “Studies find the highest prevalence for loneliness and isolation among people with poor physical or mental health, disabilities, financial insecurity, those who live alone, single parents, as well as younger and older populations. In fact, young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely than those over 65.”

“Regular interactions we have in our communities, including those at store checkout counters, are important. Referred to as ‘weak ties’ – low-stakes, friendly relationships that come out of daily life – help maintain our well-being. It’s somebody who makes you feel important in their world,” Antonucc said. “Somebody who makes you feel human.”

Self-checkouts appear here to stay but total automation does not have to be inevitable. Facial recognition AI or “Face Pay” does not have to take over, although being promoted. Our conscious and collective action will help ensure that we continue to have a choice for our own health and to support neighbours’ employment. Boycotting self- checkouts has already been a factor in some chains like Walmart restaffing their counters.

In 2021, the highly automated Dutch grocery chain Jumbo announced it was introducing 200 “chat registers” in its stores for customers who aren’t in a hurry and want to have a chat during checkout. It’s part of the government sponsored “One Against Loneliness” program.

Just Imagine!